Injured fighters push past limits

Dan Henderson's knee, Ronda Rousey's armbars have big impact on fighters and UFC.

Our biography is our biology. Our bodies tell the story of what we have done and where we have been.

That is truer more than ever for Dan Henderson. He not only wears his story on his sleeve, but also on his face. And as we learned at UFC 157 in his fight against Lyoto Machida, his knee might soon become a main character.

Back in August, Dan suffered a partial tear of his medial collateral ligament, which is the ligament that runs along the inner side of the knee. The problem with partial tears is that they run a huge spectrum, from small to almost complete ruptures. Given Henderson’s strong reputation as one of the toughest fighters ever in the sport of mixed martial arts, we can rightfully assume that any injury that would take him out of action temporarily, would have certainly sidelined any other elite athlete.

It is Henderson’s toughness that makes him so great. At 42 years old, his body is a machine, able to withstand punishment that a man half his age would crumble under. Fighting as long as he has, in a sport where your body is constantly on the line and the price you pay may be irreversible damage, is truly a testament to his sheer determination, willpower and athleticism.

Every fighter has a bad night, whether you are 42 or 22 years old. With Henderson, however, things might start to be different.

When an MCL is torn, even partially, it often heals on its own. However, sometimes the ligament heals with a degree of looseness resulting in a knee with more laxity than it had before the injury. This laxity can lead to some instability in the way the knee is able to maintain how it fits together under motion.

Parts of the knee might move forward or backward, side to side or even twist. It’s these variations from normal knee biomechanics that allow the structures inside the knee, like the meniscus (the knee’s shock absorber) and cartilage to get damaged. Once these are damaged, they are often irreparable and can lead to degeneration and early arthritis.

Arthritis has no cure, and when significant enough, is treated with a total knee replacement, which means no more contact sports.

On Saturday, Henderson came out against Machida wearing a knee brace, which immediately gave the signal he was not completely confident in his knee. At minimum, he was taking precautions.

In fact, with the exception of a quick flurry at the end of the second round, Henderson was unable to generate the significant knockout power we have become accustomed to. In order to generate strong punching power, you need to push off your back leg. In this case, it was his injured leg he needed to use.

By the end of the first round, Henderson avoided putting any significant weight on his back leg. Sometimes, while moving forward, he took only short stuttering steps, which limits the amount of force you put on a single leg. Early degeneration and continued laxity might have contributed to a more hesitant fight.

The other tough fighters in the spotlight last night at UFC 157 were Ronda Rousey and Liz Carmouche. Rousey, a judo champion and unbeaten mixed martial artist, squared off against former US Marine Carmouche. Both women showed that heart is determined by how hard you fight, not by your gender.

Early in the fight, Carmouche mounted Rousey’s back and attempted a rear-naked choke, which, failing to get under Rousey’s chin, became a face crank that put significant force on the neck and jaw of Rousey. In the post-fight press conference, Rousey admitted to severe discomfort from the crank, citing a previous jaw injury from her youth. Fortunately for Rousey, she was able to escape.

Women in MMA may not be as massive and strong as some of their male counterparts, but they can certainly cause significant damage. Jiu-jitsu and other grappling arts train fighters to use technique more than strength, and when a technique is properly applied, it can cause significant pain.

Rousey, of course, is a master of applying devastating grappling techniques, winning all of her professional fights by armbar submission in the first round. Armbars, like all hyperextension injuries can result in significant damage. The damage is usually to ligaments, and not to bones.

Miesha Tate, Rousey’s last opponent before joining the UFC, suffered damage to multiple ligaments in her elbow from a Rousey armbar.

What makes armbars so dangerous, is that the practitioner does not have to have a lot of strength, but simply apply the technique correctly to cause massive damage. If damage is severe enough to warrant surgery, repaired elbow ligaments do not heal as well as surgically repaired knee ligaments. Thus, careers can be ended in a blink of an eye. And in Rousey’s case, maybe even in the first round.

Whether it’s Rousey’s devastating armbars or Henderson’s grit, pushing past his knee injury, fighters who step into the Octagon enter ready to write a new chapter in fight history. The average person would never go to such physical extremes, but these fighters show us through their hearts that their stories are not yet complete.

Jonathan “The Fight Doctor” Gelber is the founder of Got questions? Ask him on Twitter: @FightMedicine

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